A Case for Limited Police Activity

NOTE: Since writing this article, the author has revised his understanding of the concept of authority and no longer believes there is an existential distinction between authoritative and non-authoritative entities. Hence, he no longer believes that the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate forms of authority arises from a special standard of legitimacy applied to forms of authority in particular. However, he continues to enjoy the adrenaline rush of recklessly riding through the circle of death without a helmet or a working breaking system.

The Stanford Police Department does a wonderful job of providing a “safe, secure atmosphere” for the residents of the Stanford community that is certainly “conducive to freedom of expression and movement.” These are words lifted from the police department’s own website, as the stated purpose of their agency. In fact, this emphasis on security and freedom was one of my prime motivations for attending Stanford. Coming from a rather strict New England boarding schooling, in which the police were absurdly overbearing, to the point of stopping people for not wearing a helmet while rollerblading, or chasing kids through the woods for sneaking out of their dorm rooms past 10 PM, I made sure that the University I attended would have real and actual freedom, and not just the empty rhetoric that is so à la mode in current political conversation. That is to say, I was extremely happy when I discovered that Stanford’s motto was “Die Luft der Freiheit weht,” and when I read online that the Stanford police were gloriously not strict.

I have become so accustomed to this lack of strictness that when I went to Princeton two weekends ago, I was shocked that my friends were scared of walking around campus with beer bottles in their purses. The same thing happened when I traveled to Columbia a few weekends before that. It made me rejoice to think of Stanford University as a haven for freedom, where minors can drink with impunity, and where we dare to stand up to all the ridiculous abridgments of freedom that the nation has seen fit to adopt, such as the alcohol law.

Not once have I seen a student at Stanford seriously worry about being arrested for their discreet personal habits, or for expressing their opinion in public, or for running naked in the streets, or any other non-harmful “crime.” Although the police department does not outright admit that they give students liberty to indulge in all sorts of personal habits that the nation at large forbids, it is the tacit agreement that they will not go out of their way to interfere in your life, and will only step in if you are a danger to others or so obviously in violation of a law that they themselves could get in trouble for not enforcing it. At Stanford, unlike most places in America or Canada, I rarely feel that the police themselves are a threat to my freedom or well being.  Generally, I feel that the police do their job, which is to keep me safe from violence.

However, the times, they are a changin’, and many students feel that there has recently been an increase in high-profile type crimes around campus, such as theft, battery, and prowling. Even the best-run police department cannot possibly be everywhere at once, and so violations of the law of nature are sure to sometimes occur, since individuals are not perfect. However, it is my expectation that if these types of crimes are in fact increasing, the amount of security provided by the department should increase proportionally. In other words, there should be more resources directed, by both housing and the police, to prevent aggressive crimes or violations of privacy from occurring on campus.

Whether or not the police is doing this is a question that I was unable to have answered by the department in time for this article, since they are very busy, but what I, and others on the Review staff have noticed is that the police has become increasingly strict with regards to biking regulations. I, for one, do not see why the police feels the need to increase resources to try to prevent traffic infringements when there appear to be more pressing concerns. I think that many on campus would agree with me on this point. After all, what is the purpose of a police department in society, if not to provide a service that the people want?

What does an increased emphasis on ticketing bike infringements really accomplish? Does it increase the safety of the students? Hardly. I don’t know of any individual who bikes in a more cautious manner when the police aren’t watching them directly. Students either choose to bike safely or not to, and the deterrent of the improbable occasion of getting caught breaking a traffic law is not enough to change the habits of Stanford students who have to rush off quickly to their next class.

Why should the police department regulate this type of behavior anyways? Individuals choose to bike, and by making this decision they de facto agree to the dangers that biking entails.  The very act of living is a dangerous endeavor, and a free society allows individuals to take risks while demanding that individuals take responsibility for their actions and the natural consequences of those actions. But a free society does not impose additional, unnatural consequences on individuals, unless these individuals deliberately and directly harm others. If the people of Stanford University do not want to be subject to a law, then the police has no right to enforce it. If people think that biking is too dangerous, then they have the right to wear a helmet, to adopt safer habits, to bike on paths with fewer people, or to not bike at all. Those are the types of spontaneous and self-interested decisions that lead to a better and more efficient society.

Yes, there are drawbacks to biking through stop signs and to dangerous biking behavior in general, and we see these drawbacks manifesting themselves when bikers get into crashes and become gravely injured. But who’s to say that the prevention of these injuries is worth all of the lost time inherent in traffic regulations, lost resources towards the prevention of higher crimes and the lost joy and adrenaline of an unrestricted and free bike flight through the circle of death? You might think I’m crazy for thinking that these factors are worth their costs, but the majority of Stanford students make the same implicit decision as me when they choose to bike dangerously or in violation of regulations. And by making these choices, the priorities of the student body become clear. It is not the police department’s job to protect us from ourselves or to violate the free decisions of the people whom they are supposed to serve; rather, they are to limit their actions to keeping us safe from aggression, which is the only legitimate purpose of any authority.

Mat Tappert ’15 is a senior staff writer for the Stanford Review. He can be reached at mtappert@stanford.edu.

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